People are more likely to report short-term memory loss after starting cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins, but the finding probably has nothing to do with the medications, a new study suggests.
"It’s a completely false alarm that doesn’t look like it’s real and shouldn’t enter into the equation of whether or not someone should take their statins," said Dr. Brian Strom of Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.
Previous reports and studies suggested memory problems may be tied to statins, which are a popular class of cholesterol-lowering medications, Strom and his colleagues write in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Statins are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs. They lower LDL or "bad" cholesterol, and ultimately prevent cardiovascular problems like heart attacks and strokes.
For the new study, the researchers used 1987-2013 medical record data from the U.K. on more than 482,500 people not taking any drugs to lower their cholesterol, a similar number of people who were taking statins and nearly 26,500 people who were taking other types of cholesterol-lowering medications.
The researchers checked the records to see whether people in the study had told their doctors about short-term memory loss.
Overall, 0.08 percent of statin users had some sort of memory problem noted in their medical record within 30 days after starting statins, compared to 0.02 percent of those not taking cholesterol-lowering medications.
But when the researchers compared people taking other kinds of cholesterol-lowering medications to those not taking any such drugs at all, they found a similar pattern.
"To our surprise, we found the same thing – also a four-fold increased risk" for people using the other drugs, Strom told Reuters Health. "When you look at the two together" - statins and other cholesterol medications - "you see no difference."
After conducting other comparisons, the researchers believe the increase in short-term memory problems is probably related to what's known as a detection bias.
"People who forget their keys may forget their keys either way, but if they’re on a new drug they’re going to blame it on the new drug," Strom said. He added that the two types of cholesterol-lowering drugs work in very different ways.
"It’s hard to say there is truly a cause and effect that statin drugs affect memory," said Dr. David Frid, a staff cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
The benefits of statins are well recorded, and people should talk with their doctors if they feel they're experiencing significant memory loss after starting a medication, said Frid, who was not involved in the new study.
"The risk here of a short term memory loss should not enter into the equation of whether or not people should take a statin," Strom said.
"All drugs have risk," he said. "People should not think drug are completely safe. It doesn’t matter if you're talking about prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs or herbal drugs."